Good morning and welcome to Europe Express. Seismic news broke late last night, with the US backing a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines. The pharma industry will not be pleased. The EU kept mum for now, assessing how to react.
As for our tour this morning, as on every Thursday, we are bringing you a profile of someone to watch. This time it is Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s far-right rising star, who is capitalising on the League party’s decision to make a U-turn and embrace Mario Draghi’s government.
With leaders headed to Porto for a social summit tomorrow (or at least some of them — Angela Merkel and Mark Rutte are staying away), I will be taking a look at the state of European social democracy, which is struggling to position itself for the post-pandemic recovery.
And we will dissect the EU’s newfound appetite for joint purchasing of pharmaceutical products — after vaccines, Brussels will today propose negotiating contracts on behalf of the entire bloc with makers of Covid-19 treatments.
Is it possible to be in power and to be in opposition at the same time? For three decades, Italy’s rightwing League party proved itself a master of this political paradox, signing up to six different coalition governments while angrily protesting from the sidelines, writes our Rome correspondent Miles Johnson.
When Matteo Salvini this year pledged allegiance to Mario Draghi’s national unity government, many in Rome expected his party to swiftly return to its old tricks. Eager to maintain a political identity inside the coalition, Salvini has done exactly that, savaging the government’s health minister and blasting its slowness to lift pandemic restrictions.
But the League’s tried and tested “one foot in, one foot out” strategy, perfected under former leader Umberto Bossi, this time faces a worrying obstacle: Giorgia Meloni.
The leader of the Brothers of Italy, which traces its history to Italy’s post-fascist politics, opted to stay alone in opposition while Salvini and every other large political party backed Draghi.
The normally motor-mouthed Salvini has been muzzled by the League’s commitment to backing the Draghi government in parliament. As a result, Meloni’s party has been able to chip away at its poll lead.
She appears to be within reach of overtaking the League as the largest party on the Italian right. A recent poll published by Italian daily Corriere della Sera had the League narrowly as the largest party, at 21.9 per cent, with the Brothers of Italy at 18.9 per cent.
Meloni, a 44-year-old from Rome, has already shown signs of the strategies she will employ to make Salvini squirm as much as possible. Last month, the Brothers of Italy called a no-confidence vote in Roberto Speranza, Italy’s health minister. The vote had no chance of succeeding, but it forced Salvini to embarrassingly vote in favour of the man he had spent months attacking as incompetent.
Officially, the League, the Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi’s diminished Forza Italia make up a rightwing alliance that contests regional elections together and would govern in unison should they win Italy’s next election, scheduled to take place in 2023 at the latest. Crucially, the three parties have a gentleman’s agreement that the one that receives the most votes would choose the prime minister.
Should Meloni’s lone opposition to Draghi push her above Salvini in the polls, the political consequences could be explosive. Salvini may decide he can no longer politically afford to support Draghi if he is to achieve his dream of becoming prime minister. That would pit him against powerful forces inside the League who staunchly support the ex-European Central Bank president.
The horse race between Meloni and Salvini to lead Italy’s right in the next general election may prove to be the most important factor in how long the Draghi government lasts.
The EU carbon price has jumped to more than €50 a tonne for the first time, more than doubling the cost of polluting in the bloc, compared with pre-pandemic levels. (Find out why)
EU leaders are heading to Porto for a social summit tomorrow that will focus on how to make Europe a fairer and more inclusive continent.
Yet in many parts of the union, left-of-centre parties that see that agenda as core to their identities are struggling to defend their political footprint.
In France and Germany, centre-left parties do not have a strong shot at running a government anytime soon, even as expansionist fiscal policies they instinctively support are being implemented across Europe.
The contrast is acute with the US, where Democratic president Joe Biden’s popularity rate is holding steady as he embarks on a massive stimulus.
The demise of centrist parties has been a longstanding phenomenon in European politics, as they are squeezed on the right by populists and on the left by green movements, said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, a Brussels-based think-tank.
“But while the centre-right has managed to hold on to power, albeit in increasingly unwieldy coalitions, the centre-left’s erosion has continued even though the pandemic should have given it an ideal environment for social policies and public services it has long advocated for.”
Spain’s Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez provides a case in point. His minority government will come under even more pressure from the conservative opposition and its rising star, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who just scored a spectacular victory in Madrid after running on an anti-Sánchez campaign.
General elections remain two years away (if early polls don’t happen sooner), but Sánchez’s minority government is already under fire over its plans to spend €140bn from the EU coronavirus recovery fund.
Meanwhile, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias quit politics altogether after the leftist party placed fifth despite him having resigned as deputy prime minister to run in the Madrid race. (More on Iglesias here)
Further north, Finland’s leftwing coalition barely managed to avoid collapse last week. It still faces a significant hurdle in cobbling enough votes to pass legislation supporting the EU’s borrowing capacity to fuel the bloc’s €750bn fund.
Bulgarian socialists, given the opportunity yesterday to form a government, threw in the towel as they failed to garner support from other parties, placing the country on track for an election repeat on July 11.
One of the exceptions in Europe is Portugal’s António Costa — the prime minister hosting the social summit (and occupying the rotating EU presidency). Costa was re-elected a few months before the pandemic and hasn’t seen his popularity dented significantly the way many of his centre-left peers have.
Brussels plans to launch joint EU procurement of Covid-19 therapeutic drugs as part of a wider effort to prepare for possible virus variants and help patients suffering from long-term symptoms, writes our EU diplomatic correspondent Michael Peel.
The European Commission will today propose the bloc buy a portfolio of medicines and invest in treatments under a scheme modelled on the collective coronavirus vaccine-buying initiative.
The plan will stir debate about the EU’s long-term pandemic strategy and the merits of joint procurement. While member states were generally supportive of the landmark bloc-wide vaccine buying scheme, which was co-ordinated by the commission, it made a bumpy start, dominated by a bitter row with AstraZeneca over delivery shortfalls.
Under the proposed therapeutics strategy, the commission would draw up a list of 10 potential Covid-19 treatment drugs and identify the five most promising ones by next month, according to people briefed on the matter. Brussels would plan to invest in the most promising medicines, seal contracts and achieve the necessary regulatory authorisations by the end of the year.
The EU would also invest €90m in population studies and clinical trials to identify risk factors for Covid-19 sufferers, including for those blighted with “long Covid” symptoms months after initial infections. The European bloc would also put €40m towards improving manufacturing and supply chains for Covid-19 therapeutics.